New York Times
Thirst turns to desperation in rural California
PORTERVILLE, Calif. -- After a nine-hour day working in a citrus packing plant, her body covered in a sheen of fruit wax and dust, there is nothing Angelica Gallegos wants more than a hot shower, with steam to help clear her throat and lungs.
“I can just picture it, that feeling of finally being clean — really refreshed and clean,” Ms. Gallegos, 37, said one recent evening.
But she has not had running water for more than five months — nor is there any tap water in her near future — because of a punishing and relentless drought in California. In the Gallegos household and more than 500 others in Tulare County, residents cannot flush a toilet, fill a drinking glass, wash dishes or clothes, or even rinse their hands
Unlike the Okies who came here fleeing the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the people now living on this parched land are stuck. “We don’t have the money to move, and who would buy this house without water?” said Ms. Gallegos, who grew up in the area and shares a tidy mobile home with her husband and two daughters. “When you wake up in the middle of the night sick to your stomach, you have to think about where the water bottle is before you can use the toilet.”
Now in its third year, the state’s record-breaking drought is being felt in many ways: vanishing lakes and rivers, lost agricultural jobs, fallowed farmland, rising water bills, suburban yards gone brown. But nowhere is the situation as dire as in East Porterville, a small rural community in Tulare County where life’s daily routines have been completely upended by the drying of wells and, in turn, the disappearance of tap water.
“Everything has changed,” said Yolanda Serrato, 54, who has spent most of her life here. Until this summer, the lawn in front of her immaculate three-bedroom home was a lush green, with plants dotting the perimeter. As her neighbors’ wells began running dry, Ms. Serrato warned her three children that they should cut down on hourlong showers, but they mostly rebuffed her. “They kept saying, ‘No, no, Mama, you’re just too negative,’ ” she said.
Then the sink started to sputter. These days, the family of five relies on a water tank in front of their home that they received through a local charity. The sole neighbor with a working well allows them to hook up to his water at night, saving them from having to use buckets to flush toilets in the middle of the night. On a recent morning, there was still a bit of the neighbor’s well water left, trickling out the kitchen faucet, taking over 10 minutes to fill two three-quart pots.
“You don’t think of water as privilege until you don’t have it anymore,” said Ms. Serrato, whose husband works in the nearby fields. “We were very proud of making a life here for ourselves, for raising children here. We never ever expected to live this way.”
Like Ms. Serrato, the vast majority of residents here in the Sierra Nevada foothills are Mexican immigrants, drawn to the state’s Central Valley to work in the expansive agricultural fields. Many here have spent lifetimes scraping together money to buy their own small slice of land, often with a mobile home sitting on top. Hundreds of these homes are hooked to wells that are treated as private property: When the water is there, it is solely controlled by owners. Because the land is unincorporated, it is not part of a municipal water system, and connecting to one would be prohibitively expensive.
The Gallegos family’s drinking water comes only from bottles, mostly received through donations but sometimes bought at the gas station. For showering, washing dishes and flushing toilets, the family relies on buckets filled with water from a tank set in the front lawn, which Mr. Gallegos replenishes every other day at the county fire station. Often, the water runs out before he returns home from his job as a mechanic, forcing Ms. Gallegos to wait for hours before she can clean.
The family has spent hundreds of dollars to wash their clothes at the laundromat and on paper goods to avoid washing dishes. Ms. Gallegos recently told her 10-year-old daughter that there was no money left to pay for her after-school cheerleading club.
The local high school has begun allowing students to arrive early and shower there. Parents often keep their children home from school if they have not bathed, worried that they could lose custody if the authorities deem the students too dirty, a rumor that county officials have tried to dismiss. Mothers who normally take pride in their home-cooked meals now rely on canned and fast food, because washing fresh vegetables uses too much water.
Ms. Serrato and others receive help from a local charity organization, the Porterville Area Coordinating Council, which opens its doors each weekday morning to hand out water. A whiteboard displays the distribution system: Families of four receive three cases of bottled water and two gallon jugs, families of six get four cases and four gallon jugs, and so on.
For months, families called county and state officials asking what they should do when their water ran out, only to be told that there was no public agency that could help them.
“Nobody knows where to go, who to talk to: These aren’t people who rely on government to help,” said Donna Johnson, 72, an East Porterville resident whose own well went dry in July. As she began learning that hundreds of her neighbors were also out of water, she used her own money to buy gallons of water, handed them out of her truck and compiled a list of those in need. County officials rely on her list as the most complete snapshot of who needs help; dozens are added each day. “It’s a slow-moving disaster that nobody knows how to handle,” Ms. Johnson said.
State officials say that at least 700 households have no access to running water, but they acknowledge that there could be hundreds more, with many rural well-owners not knowing whom to contact. Tulare County, just south of Fresno, recently began aggressively tracking homes without running water, delivering bottles to hundreds of homes and offering applications for biweekly water deliveries, using private donations and money from a state grant. In August, the county placed a 5,000-gallon tank of water in front of a fire station on Lake Success Road, and plans to add a second soon. A sign in English and Spanish declares, “Do not use for drinking,” but officials suspect that many do.
“We will give people water as long as we have it, but the truth is, we don’t really know how long that will be,” said Andrew Lockman, who leads the Tulare County Office of Emergency Services. “We can’t offer anyone a long-term solution right now. There is a massive gap between need and resources to deal with it.”
Clever water trade saves citrus trees in Terra Bella area
BY MARK GROSSI
A drought-inspired water swap will likely save hundreds of citrus orchards in the rolling hills of Tulare County, but it won't come cheap for desperate farmers.
Terra Bella growers were facing the summer without San Joaquin River water in a region with almost no well water. Terra Bella Irrigation District leaders feared thousands of acres of trees would be lost, amounting to a $59 million hit.
Now the farmers are getting 5,400 acre-feet of water, which will be added to other smaller water trades that will give them about half of what they usually use, according to the irrigation district.
In this complex water deal, they'll be paying $1,200 per acre-foot that will cover costs of returning the water to a Kern County water district. The bill is about six times higher than the usual acre-foot price, but it beats losing all those trees.
"It's good news," said general manager Sean Geivet of the Terra Bella district. "But it's still a tough time here because $1,200 per acre-foot of water is a lot of money."
Each acre-foot -- 326,000 gallons -- is jealously watched now in California as the nation's leading agriculture belt prepares for a hot, dry summer. A University of California at Davis study last month estimated farm losses at $1.7 billion this year because of the ongoing drought.
Terra Bella growers already had weathered a killing freeze in December. When the rain stopped for two months in winter, they scrambled.
Terra Bella district leaders talked with the Arvin-Edison Water Storage District in Kern County. Arvin-Edison talked with the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Authority in Merced County.
Then, for the first time in their histories, Arvin-Edison and the Exchange Contractors -- 170 miles apart -- arranged a deal to move water down the Friant-Kern Canal to Terra Bella.
Water will be returned to Arvin-Edison over the next several years as long as precipitation is near average. Terra Bella has agreed to return five acre-feet of water for each acre-foot of water it receives now -- in other words, 25,000 acre-feet will be returned.
Steve Collup, Arvin-Edison general manager, said the drought has created the need to change the way business is done.
"I think this water transfer shows that nobody can be isolated from the rest of agriculture these days," said Collup.
Steve Chedester, executive director of the Exchange Contractors, agreed: "We need to be as helpful as we can. No money changed hands for us. We weren't doing this for money."
But farmers are paying the $1,200 per acre-foot as part of a fund to pay operations, maintenance and other costs to return water in the future, said Geivet.
Here's how the deal works:
Arvin-Edison has some Northern California water in San Luis Reservoir in western Merced County. The Exchange Contractors, who farm on the San Joaquin Valley's west side, agreed to take some of the Arvin-Edison water from San Luis Reservoir this summer.
In return, Arvin-Edison will get the same amount of San Joaquin River water from the Exchange Contractors, who are getting water this summer from Millerton Lake.
The San Joaquin water will run south through the Friant-Kern Canal, which passes Terra Bella before it reaches the Arvin-Edison district. Terra Bella will receive 5,000 acre-feet of water.
The deal involves another far-away organization -- the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which owned part of the San Luis Reservoir water used in the swap. Federal and state agencies as well as other water entities took part.
Collup of Arvin-Edison said: "It took 22 approvals to get it done. But the stars aligned, and it worked."
Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/06/05/3962883/clever-water-trade-saves-man...
As citrus trees bloom, ‘dismal’ water year looms
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Issue Date: April 9, 2014
By Kate Campbell
Blooms are popping open in California citrus groves, putting on a show with one of the strongest flowerings in recent memory. But farmers caution the early showing doesn't necessarily translate into a large crop at harvest. Many variables come into play—and growers say an adequate water supply is their biggest concern right now.
"This year there's a heavier bloom around the entire circumference of the trees," said citrus farmer Larry Peltzer of Ivanhoe. "We call it a 'popcorn bloom' because flowers are popping out everywhere, engulfing the entire tree."
Like many California farmers, Peltzer said lack of water is his biggest worry. His operation buys surface irrigation water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Friant Division through the Ivanhoe Irrigation District. The district received a zero water allocation from the bureau, but will provide farmers with 0.18 acre-feet per acre from the Kaweah River, at a cost of $400 an acre-foot.
"That's not enough to make a difference and we're not counting on getting any more water," Peltzer said, adding that it takes 3.2 acre-feet a year to sustain an acre of citrus trees. "We have wells, but some of them are weak and the water levels are dropping. We've been told we'll have a 90-day run of water from the Kaweah River, but if it gets hot this summer, it won't help us much."
To prepare, Peltzer is now harvesting as much of his valencia orange crop as possible, to take the load off the trees.
"Everybody in our area is facing the same situation," he said, referring to the 10,000 acres of citrus crops within the district. "It's dismal."
Peltzer said he's using moisture sensor probes and monitoring irrigation schedules very carefully.
"Our trees are in great health, so if we can get through this summer, we can bring the 2014-15 crop to fruition," he said. "That's our goal."
Citrus has been grown in the San Joaquin Valley for more than 100 years and production for the 250,000 acres of citrus trees statewide is valued at more than $2 billion a year.
This year's drought comes on top of a freeze in early December 2013, when seven consecutive nights of subfreezing temperatures hit San Joaquin Valley citrus trees. California Citrus Mutual estimates valley citrus growers collectively spent $49 million to protect the 2013-14 crop, with Kern County citrus suffering the greatest amount of freeze damage. In addition, the organization said, the navel orange harvest will likely end in mid-May—more than a month earlier than usual—because of freeze damage.
The cold December weather may also have affected the spring citrus bloom.
"This year's bloom is strong and early," said citrus grower Rod Radke of Sanger. "I'm attributing some of that to the chilling hours we got during the freeze. While causing some serious damage, the extreme cold probably had the effect of resetting the trees."
Radke said citrus growing conditions have been "ideal" so far this spring.
"I'm not a proponent of drought, but dry conditions mean we've been able to control things in the groves a little better, and we're ahead on our pruning and trimming work," he said.
"If we set 6 percent of the blossoms on the trees this year, it would be a huge crop," Radke said. "But remember, these trees are very sensitive to fluctuations in the environment and a number of things can cause the tree to drop the fruit."
The precise application of water to citrus trees is a moving target, he said, adding "we monitor all the time to stay within ranges related to temperatures, humidity and evapotranspiration to determine how much water to apply and when. It's an area where science and art overlap."
Radke said the trees are going into the spring with a robust look, but said he worries about the outlook for water.
Noting the strength of this spring's bloom, California Citrus Mutual President Joel Nelsen said the sticking point is whether growers will have sufficient water to allow the immature fruit buds to stay on the trees.
"The existing zero water allocation for the east side of the San Joaquin Valley has the potential to put about 50,000 acres of citrus out of production," Nelsen said. "That means navels, mandarins and lemons."
After petal fall, he said, growers irrigate to ensure the immature fruit buds affix to the trees. A lot of the need for irrigation water depends on temperature: Hot and cold spikes can cause early fruit losses.
"A lot of factors come into play when you're trying to produce a crop," Tulare County citrus grower Keith Watkins said. "Ask me how things are going the first of November and I'll be more confident about my answer.
"If we end up with an inadequate water supply—and the bigger the fruit, the bigger the demand on the trees—then some growers are talking about a late pruning to take crop off," Watkins said, adding, "It's going to be challenging to make it through with nothing but well water, and not all farmers have access to underground supplies."
In Tulare County, the state's largest citrus-producing county, citrus bloom has been officially declared, meaning that Agricultural Commissioner Marilyn Kinoshita has advised all citrus growers, pest control operators and beekeepers that bee-protection measures must be observed. County inspectors check the bloom in groves to determine when protections can be safely lifted.
(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert.
California Drought Spurs Groundwater Drilling Boom in Central Valley
Drillers have more work than they can handle, as water tables fall and experts warn of long-term consequences.
Brian Clark Howard
PUBLISHED AUGUST 15, 2014
... By the end of June, the Central Valley county of Tulare—the state's leader in agricultural production—had issued 874 well permits. That's 44 more than the county logged for all of 2013. According to a report released by the University of California, Davis, in mid-July, the state's food producers will see an estimated $1 billion in lost revenue and have to spend an additional $500 million in pumping costs this year due to the drought.
PHOTOGRAPH BY SPENCER MILLSAP, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
Sharing a Dwindling Resource?
At his office on the leafy campus of California State University, Sacramento, hydrogeologist Tim Horner said, "In California, we are pumping out groundwater faster than it can recharge."
Horner chairs his school's geology department and many of his former students have flocked to the Central Valley to search for water and advise drilling operations. But the science is hampered by the Golden State's antiquated regulatory structure, Horner said.
California is the only state Horner is aware of that does not require water well logs to be made available to scientists and regulators. In dry Texas, in contrast, well data must be posted online so that officials can track the status of aquifers.
Even worse, "in California we don't regulate our pumping at all," said Horner. "There's nothing that says someone can't pump a well until it's dry."
A July 31 report from Stanford University's Water in the West programpointed out that in normal years, groundwater provides about 40 percent of the water California uses. But during drought, that number jumps to 60 percent.
"Using groundwater to supplement California's water supply has allowed farmers and communities in California to limp through the current drought, but at the cost of dramatically drawing down the aquifers," the report warns.
According to Horner, not only does emptying aquifers pose a risk for a water-scarce future, but it also can decrease the amount of water that may be available to recharge springs and streams and nourish ecosystems.
And as water is removed, it can cause soil to collapse. Not only can this permanently decrease the amount of water that an aquifer can hold, but it can also lead to disruptions on the surface through land subsidence. (See "In California, Demand for Groundwater Causing Huge Swaths of Land to Sink.")